HAVANA (AP) — The whimsical designs of the graffiti artist with the signature Yulier P. began to appear randomly on walls around Havana three years ago. The first ones were large abstract renderings of rabbits, their floppy ears outlined in black against chipped concrete.
Now, there is hardly a neighborhood in the Cuban capital where you can't find one of the sprawling works of Yulier P. They include enormous gaping mouths 2 yards (meters) high, or flowers mixed either with the image of a woman or in the hands of a child.
The works of the 27-year-old artist, whose full name is Yulier Rodriguez Perez, are striking not just for their artistry and ubiquity, but that they exist at all in a place where graffiti is rare and nearly all posters and murals feature political slogans or revolutionary figures. His art stands out not only for being different, but for its sly sense of social criticism.
"It is important to me that the urban artist expresses himself freely, not restricted by anyone, whether it's a gallery or the government," Rodriguez said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Cuba has long had a thriving art scene and in recent years there has been a boom for works by some of the island's most famous painters, including Manuel Mendive, Roberto Fabelo and Nelson Dominguez.
But Rodriguez did not emerge from the artistic establishment.
He was born in the central province of Camaguey, where he said he tried without success to get a formal art education. Instead, he learned on his own with local teachers, participating in community workshops and using his own walls for a canvas. He said he sees his work as a political and social statement.
"The urban artist questions society and politics, the realities of life in the streets," which for him includes a sense of helplessness and frustration over the daily struggles that may not fit with the image many have of Cuba.
While he does not have the government's endorsement, he seems to be tolerated. Rodriguez said that the police have never interfered with his work and have kept others from vandalizing his art. He has, though, been questioned by state security agents about work they considered overtly political.
"It's not that I'm against the system," he said. "I am in favor of a system that works for the people ... the good and the bad are aspects of the truth."
He has not catalogued his paintings, which typically take about 40 minutes to complete, but estimates that he's done around 150, mostly in Havana.
The works are often welcomed by people in Havana as a diversion from the sometimes drab cityscape.
Osmel Ochoa, a 40-year resident of the rundown section of Old Havana known as Belen, is an admirer. "It's a new style for me but people enjoy it in inhospitable places," said Ochoa. "They should be everywhere."